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Just about three weeks after Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat him in the race, Alan Shepard launched aboard his Freedom 7 capsule fifty years ago today at 9:34 a.m. EDT to become the first American in space. Powered by a Redstone booster, Shepard's flight, part of Project Mercury, lasted all of 15 minutes and 28 seconds.

Project Mercury, which ran from 1959 through 1963, had the singular goal of putting an American in orbit around the Earth. For about $384 million (or $2.9 billion in 2010 dollars), Mercury comprised more than two dozen launches, most of them unmanned, that laid the groundwork for NASA's Apollo missions and Project Gemini.

This image, from NASA, details a simple plan for the flight of Mercury's capsule over the Atlantic Ocean. Blasting off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the capsule would reach an altitude of 125 miles before falling back to Earth.

View moreĀ Pictures of the Day.

Image: NASA.

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